A World Without Arms Control
April 30, 2024
  • Alexander Golts
Military expert Alexander Golts writes that by categorically refusing any negotiations with the US on strategic stability, Russia is cutting the lines of communication between the two major nuclear powers, thereby increasing the likelihood of worst-case scenarios. A new statement by the Russian Ministry of Foreign affairs on the upcoming military exercises ordered by President Putin to “enhance the combat readiness of Russia’s non-strategic nuclear forces" in response to “provocative statements and threats” against Russia “from certain Western officials” sounds exactly like the escalation Golts warned about in his piece published on April 30.
Moscow’s approach to potential negotiations with Washington on nuclear weapons (also known as strategic stability) boils down to a resounding “no.” The last “no” was voiced by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on April 24, when he made a speech at the Moscow Nonproliferation Conference: “there is no basis whatsoever for an arms control and strategic stability dialogue with the US in the face of a total hybrid war being waged against our country. This agenda cannot be artificially separated from the general international segment and be considered in isolation from other aspects of interstate relations, as Washington is seeking to present. It will be possible to discuss these topics only after the US authorities renounce their openly hostile anti-Russian policy.”

This is how Lavrov explained why Moscow is ignoring the obligation to reduce its nuclear arsenal that it assumed as a nuclear power under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

No negotiations

To put it bluntly, Moscow is resolutely refusing a dialogue with the US on nuclear arms control, conditioning that on a refusal by Washington to support Ukraine, Russia’s war with which has been going on for more than two years.

Russian diplomats are toeing the line put down by Vladimir Putin in his February address to the Federal Assembly: “the current US administration’s professed interest in discussing strategic stability with us is simply demagoguery… Our position is clear: if you want to discuss security and stability issues that are critical for the entire planet, this must be done as a package including, of course, all aspects that have to do with our national interests and have a direct bearing on the security of our country, the security of Russia.”
The refusal to talk to the Americans about strategic stability is so resolute that Moscow will not even discuss initiatives put forward by its main strategic partner – China.
A Topol-M ICBM during rehearsals for the 2012 Moscow Victory Day Parade. Source: Wiki Commons
Beijing has long and persistently proposed that all nuclear powers should make a commitment not to use nuclear weapons first. Recently, Vladimir Yermakov, who heads the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Department for Nonproliferation and Arms Control, said in an interview with TASS that “we have no need to discuss the aforementioned initiative – or any other Chinese idea – with the US. There is not the slightest reason to do so.” In addition, Yermakov spoke rather dismissively about the Chinese proposal itself, quite transparently hinting at its being out of touch with current realities, as they are understood in Moscow: “[the idea] needs to be seen in the overall context of the military and political reality and in relation to all other important factors influencing international security and strategic stability.”

Note that the American approach to dialogue with Moscow on nuclear issues has not been consistent either. The US abandoned negotiations almost immediately after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. A little later, President Joe Biden linked the possibility of negotiations with certain conditions that Russia must fulfill: “negotiation requires a willing partner operating in good faith. And Russia’s brutal and unprovoked aggression in Ukraine has shattered peace in Europe and constitutes an attack on fundamental tenets of international order. In this context, Russia should demonstrate that it is ready to resume work on nuclear arms control with the US.”

However, by the middle of last year, Washington realized the need for dialogue, as Presidential National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan directly stated. The US made clear its position that it was ready to conduct such negotiations without any preconditions, putting aside all other disagreements with Moscow, including those related to Ukraine: “and rather than waiting to resolve all of our bilateral differences, the US is ready to engage Russia now to manage nuclear risks and develop a post-2026 arms control framework.”
Barack Obama and Dmitri Medvedev after signing New START, April 2010, Prague.
Source: Wiki Commons
Back to the Cuban Missile Crisis

The change in the US position is attributable to rising alarm at the fact that, in a situation where relations between the two countries are in their worst state since the Cuban Missile Crisis, nearly the entire system of bilateral cooperation in the nuclear sphere is in tatters.

The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty was blown up in 2002, followed by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) in 2019, as well as several other agreements. Vladimir Putin took the latest step on this path in February 2023, when he suspended Russia’s participation in the last of the remaining agreements, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). Moscow promised, however, not to exceed the number of warheads and delivery vehicles set out by the treaty. However, New START expires in 2026, and, according to its terms, it cannot be extended.
Complete uncertainty relative to the other side’s military capabilities and intentions, together with an uncontrolled nuclear arms race, increases the likelihood of worst-case scenarios.
Particularly in light of the Kremlin’s periodic explicit threats to use nuclear weapons (read Russia.Post about it here).

Taking advantage of the fact that the multi-tiered system of military guarantees and mutual control has disappeared, both Russia and the US are making rather risky preparations in the nuclear sphere. For instance, Moscow has placed nuclear weapons in Belarus. Washington, meanwhile, has begun production of ground-based launchers to launch from land cruise missiles with a range of 1,500 kilometers, which was previously prohibited by the INF Treaty. Such a launcher was just deployed to the Philippines as part of a joint exercise.

It is in this context that Russia is saying a resolute “no” to any negotiations with the Americans. Some might say that the Russian Foreign Ministry is adopting the old strategy of Soviet diplomacy that earned Andrei Gromyko, its top diplomat, the nickname “Mr. No.” In my view, this is a false analogy.
Jimmy Carter and Leonid Brezhnev signing the SALT II Treaty, June 1979, Vienna.
Source: Wiki Commons
From the late 1960s, Soviet diplomacy never abandoned negotiations on strategic weapons in principle. Moscow did, however, resolutely and consistently block any attempts on the part of the US to link such negotiations with any other issues. And the Soviets strictly followed this approach. Recall that the SALT I Treaty was signed in 1972 at the height of the American bombing of North Vietnam, in which Soviet citizens also died.

Today, while insisting on the need to resume negotiations, American diplomats constantly stress that negotiations on nuclear issues were conducted even during the worst periods of the Cold War. What’s important is that behind each Gromyko “no” there was a detailed strategy. The Soviet minister, who drove his State Department counterparts mad, knew exactly what specific concessions he was seeking and which ones he was ready to make.

Shooting yourself in the foot

The exact opposite approach is being taken today by Moscow: from the very beginning setting preconditions that are impossible for the US to meet.
The recent vote in Congress on the Ukraine aid package demonstrated bipartisan support for Kyiv. It is nearly impossible to imagine under what circumstances Washington would meet Russian demands and stop supporting Kyiv. Moscow is treating negotiations on strategic arms as a kind of gift to the Americans that they do not deserve.

Yet Russia needs negotiations no less than the US, and actually even more. Let’s imagine that after New START no new agreement is signed. Even before the actual arms race begins – i.e., the production of new strategic missiles, submarines and bombers – Washington is able to significantly ramp up its nuclear potential by simply taking warheads out of storage, where they now sit under the terms of New START, and putting them on missiles.
Currently, the US has stockpiled approximately twice as many such warheads as Russia.
In addition, given the war with Ukraine, it is a big question mark whether Russia, which the RAND Corporation estimates will have spent $132 billion on combat operations by the end of this year, will be able to finance an extremely expensive nuclear arms race.
Finally, by refusing negotiations, Moscow is closing off the possibility of having a permanent back channel, which during the Cold War ensured constant direct contact between the two countries and proved critically important in crisis situations. Amid the current total mutual distrust between Russia and the West, disarmament negotiations could provide an opportunity, if not to restore trust, then at least to come up with some sort of palliative.

The US-Soviet negotiations that took place from 1969 to 1972 began as a purely demonstrative, propaganda campaign. Not only was the level of mutual trust between the parties zero, but the USSR categorically did not trust its own diplomats, providing them with no specific data regarding the weapons that were to be the subject of negotiated limitations or reductions.

However, it soon became clear that such negotiations possess a certain internal energy that is capable of propelling them. Smart, talented negotiators sooner or later get tired of repeating the same statements, received from their capitals, two or three times a week during so-called plenary meetings of the delegations.

Much more interesting was the communication after “plenaries,” when the delegations broke out into groups based on interests – diplomats with diplomats, soldiers with soldiers, spies with spies. These purely informal conversations made it possible to learn much more about the position of the other side than from official declarations, which were verified down to the word and underwent the procedure of bureaucratic approval. From such private, nonbinding conversations it suddenly emerged what concessions the other side might make and what it might ask in return. For instance, a solution to one of the issues that seemed deadlocked – how many missile defense sites would be allowed and what restrictions would be put on them – was found on a plane over a bottle of beer, when two leading diplomats Oleg Grinevsky and Raymond Garthoff were coming back from a joint excursion to the Finnish tundra. This went down in history as the “tundra talks.”

However, relationships that allow for meaningful negotiations and sensitive topics to be discussed do not happen overnight. It takes months before the participants develop mutual respect and then mutual trust. The Russian side, which has staked everything on victory over Ukraine, is simply not ready for such long and painstaking work. That is why it isdemonstratively burning all the bridges.
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